In early April, the stage was set for the signing of a peace treaty between the government of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The treaty was to mark the formal end of one of Africa’s longest and most brutal wars, in which the LRA, formed largely of abducted child soldiers, had massacred whole villages and terrorized the Acholi people of northern Uganda, along with others in northern Uganda and Southern Sudan. LRA commander Joseph Kony, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity and is almost never seen in public, was to slip into a jungle clearing on the Sudan-Congo border, where the treaty had been laid out for him along with a hot buffet and mineral water. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was to sign a few days later in Juba, Southern Sudan, where peace talks had been ongoing for two years.
But Kony never showed up, and the LRA, despite its stated commitment to peace talks, was reported to be abducting children in Southern Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic, raising fears that what had been a localized conflict in northern Uganda (with some spillover into Southern Sudan) would turn into a wider war.1
Even if the war does not resume with its former intensity – and indeed, even if a treaty is eventually signed – a difficult period lies ahead for the Acholi. Many former LRA child soldiers have returned home, some of them after carrying out unspeakable atrocities. They are at the same time victims and perpetrators, and now they need to be reintegrated into Acholi society. What is the appropriate stance toward those who have returned from the bush: forgiveness, punishment or something in between? Can traditional Acholi concepts of justice, based on reconciliation, address the deep and widespread pain the war leaves in its wake?
A neglected war
While the LRA’s motives are obscure and difficult to understand, an important part of the context for the conflict is the major ethnolinguistic fault line that runs through Uganda along with the Nile River. There is virtually no trust or sense of common purpose between the Nilotic peoples of the northeast (including the Acholi) and the Bantu-speaking peoples of the southwest. As in so many other places, Uganda’s British colonial masters exploited these divisions for their own ends, favouring the southerners. Independence in 1962 was followed for more than two decades by the often violent rule of two northerners, Milton Obote and, especially, Idi Amin. After the brief rule of the Acholi General Tito Okello, Yoweri Museveni, an ethnic Munyankole from the southwest, captured power in 1986 and has held it ever since.
Internationally, Museveni is still widely regarded as having brought stability and economic growth to Uganda – a reputation he maintains since the conflict in the north, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people, displaced as many as two million and devastated the region’s economy and way of life, has been kept below the world’s radar. Jan Egeland, UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs from 2003 to 2006, called it “the world’s largest neglected humanitarian emergency.”
Museveni faced rebellions from the north from the moment he took power in 1986, and Joseph Kony’s LRA has been the main rebel force since 1987. But the most puzzling aspect of the LRA’s insurgency is that, while it claims to be fighting on behalf of the Acholi, most of its attacks since the early 1990s have been carried out against Acholi civilians. In part this is because Kony is motivated more by an apocalyptic spiritual vision based on cleansing through violence than by a political program. But it is also, no doubt, because of Kony’s anger at the Acholi for rejecting him as their saviour early in the conflict. In a detailed report written in 2004, the Refugee Law Project at Makerere University in Kampala noted, “Both … key components of the war – the long-term underlying grievances in the north and the persistent, destructive LRA – are relevant today, and each requires focused attention by policymakers in order to fully resolve the conflict.”2
Is reconciliation possible?
In 2006, peace talks between the Ugandan government and the LRA got underway in Juba, and a ceasefire was declared that has held for a year and a half (at least until the latest reports of renewed LRA abductions). As former child soldiers return to their villages, the question of how to restore the fabric of Acholi society becomes urgent. While the atrocities the LRA has carried out against the Acholi make healing difficult, the concept of reconciliation is deeply rooted in Acholi culture.
The process known as mato oput has been compared to the building of a traditional hut. The mud that holds the whole thing together is exposure, the painstaking process of seeking and telling the truth. After exposure comes responsibility. Perpetrators can only fit back into the community if there’s a willingness to accept responsibility for what they have done. Confession builds walls, not of isolation, but of trust and community. On the foundation of responsibility and repentance, there must be reparations – an attempt to compensate the victim in some way for what was lost. If forgiveness is the centre point at which all the community must meet, the poles represent people who are brought close together by restitution. Once compensation is paid, there is full restoration and reconciliation. The community is bound together once more as a place of peace, refuge and shelter.
Not everyone is convinced that mato oput can be applied to the present situation. “Mato oput is where only an incident has happened,” says Ugandan government representative Nahaman Ojwe, “not where mass murder, where these massive things have happened.” Some of the LRA’s victims feel the same way. Betty Achan, who was captured by the LRA and forced by an LRA commander to kill her own child, says, “If that commander came around now, I would try to find a way of taking revenge. These people should be punished heavily because of the long suffering the people went through. This mato oput is light – I want a much heavier punishment.”
Still, there is a grassroots campaign across northern Uganda to push the government and the rebels into applying mato oput to the civil war situation. That idea is backed by tribal and religious leaders and a majority of the people most affected by the conflict. No one has been more vocal or involved in that campaign than retired Anglican Bishop Macleord Baker Ochola, who lost both his daughter and his wife in LRA attacks. After his wife was killed in 1997, he says, “Her death became a challenge that I should dedicate my life for peace work.”
Ultimately, northern Uganda’s recovery from the war will depend on the response of each individual to the trauma they have been through, and even people who have undergone similar experiences often respond very differently. Grace Abuk and Sylvia Alal were among a group of women who were packed into a house and had their upper lips cut off. “If I saw the man who did this to me, I would stand by forgiveness,” says Abuk. “People have forgiven me and I would do the same and try to forget the whole thing.” Alal is not so sure: “I’m still very bitter. Nothing consoles me. I know it harms me to hold onto the bitterness but I can’t release it. It’s still painful for me, it haunts me and that makes it difficult for me to find forgiveness.”
The photographs on these pages (taken in July 2007) and the accompanying stories give a human face to this complex and tragic situation. The stories of former child soldiers contain graphic descriptions of violence and brutality. They are disturbing, but unfortunately they represent the reality of the war in Uganda.
“I dream about the people I’ve killed”
At the age of 14, Stella Achan was stolen from her village with an older brother and forced to march into Sudan. The trek was gruelling. Sometimes captives would stumble or stop. The rebels would ask, “Do you want to rest?” If the exhausted children said yes, they were killed instantly.
Like other rebel recruits, she was forced to kill prisoners who tried to escape, but what sets her apart is the ease with which she was able to torture. “To make sure I would be a good commander,” she says, “they gave me eight prisoners and ordered me to chop them, using my machete. The machete was heated up in a big fire and I chopped them one by one until all of them were dead. Except one man. I burned his back with the hot machete but he survived.”
Another time, Stella shot a man detained by the rebels, then cut the head off a second man with her machete. She was made to lick the blood oozing from the corpses and smear some on her face. And amid the brutality, there was little food or water. The rebels often resorted to drinking one another’s urine. So when Stella got the chance to escape during one of the rebel raids, she ran for her life and found her way home to the village of Palebek. Her parents rejoiced at her unexpected arrival. But within a few months, that joy turned to despair. Stella recounts what happened:
We were asked by my parents to go and dig some cassava. I gave a hoe to my brother and he started digging the cassava. After a while he got tired and told me to take over. I asked him if he wanted to rest and he said yes. And I said, “Okay, you come. If you want to rest, I’ll show you how to rest.” I picked up a machete and chopped his head, chopped his neck, then cut him into pieces and left him under the grass. I was used to this kind of thing from the bush. I found it very easy to kill. Each time I had something like a machete or a hoe, I felt as if I should kill someone.
Fleeing into the bush, Stella soon found the rebels and was welcomed back when she told them she had merely made a visit to her family. To prove her loyalty, she took them home where she and the rebels burned down her parents’ home after looting what they wanted.
But something had changed for Stella, and she no longer took to the life of violence in the same way. When commanded to kill a captive, she took him into the bush, cut him just enough to draw blood and told him to make a loud cry. Stella then dipped her machete in his flesh wound, let him go, and went back to her commanders who assumed her smeared weapon was proof of her obedience.
She escaped soon after. Amazingly, her family was able to forgive her when she accepted responsibility for her brother’s murder and underwent extensive counselling. Today, Stella says she no longer has violent urges. But neither she nor her parents feel free of the past:
Sometimes I scare them and they ask me if I’m mentally balanced, and I tell them I’m okay, especially at school. But I still have a lot of nightmares. I dream about the people I’ve killed. At night, those people – and many, many more – come to my bed and press me so hard. They yell at me to get up, get up! And when I awake, I find I have been crying many tears. And my body hurts all over.
“A normal human being cannot do that”
John Ochola’s face is the face of war in northern Uganda. When he was 23, rebels mutilated his nose, lips and ears and chopped off his hands. Today he lives in a simple hut with his wife, Grace, and their three young children, Alfred, Sunday and Samuel. Though life is hard, John is grateful to be alive and to have his family.
Around midnight on June 2, 2003, Lord’s Resistance Army insurgents kicked in their door, tied John to a rope and carried him off, stopping periodically to kick and beat him. A fellow abductee from his village had falsely told the rebels that John was with the Ugandan military, but he repeatedly denied the charge. Later in the day, the Ugandan army attacked, which infuriated the LRA commanders who believed the soldiers were trying to rescue John. He heard them discussing whether they should give him a short sleeve or a long sleeve, but he didn’t know what they meant.
After calling for a knife and axe, one of the rebel leaders ordered him to lift his face. As the young captive wept and screamed in pain, the commander cut off most of John’s nose, sliced away his upper lip and severed both ears. With blood gushing everywhere, the rebels held John’s hands, still tied behind him, to a small piece of log. His sadistic assailant then took an axe and lopped off his left hand at the wrist, giving him what the LRA calls a short sleeve. “As they started cutting my hand,” Ochola says, “I pleaded with them to leave my right hand so I could make a living. But they refused, saying they wanted to make sure I could never again handle a gun.” Mercilessly, the commander hacked away John’s other hand. The only consolation was that he spared him the long sleeve – amputation at the elbow.
Left with two bleeding stumps, the young captive was released with three female abductees who were to deliver John and a letter to the nearest military detachment. The letter warned that John was an example of what would happen if the rebels encountered any other soldiers in the area. Grace Ochola remembers:
Many of my friends came around and told me to leave John. They said, “He’s ugly.” My response was, “This man has been very handsome and he’s still a human being, so stay away from me.” What kept my heart on John was that he’s a loving, very kind young man. That was what attracted me to him. This other thing, the mutilation, I see it as nothing. And I remember as I was being discouraged by my friends, I wrote him a few words. I said, “My dear John, I still love you, regardless of what has happened. What if it had been me? You would not leave me. Nor will I leave you.”
But her parents did remove Grace from John’s home because he wasn’t able to finish paying her wedding dowry. When some Canadian friends kicked in enough money to pay the bride price, Grace was returned to her grateful husband. “After receiving this money,” Grace says, “John sent a letter to my parents and then the debt was satisfied. The elders, after reading the letter, met with me and asked me repeatedly if I would really stay with a man who had been mutilated. I kept saying I love John.”
John says that what got him through his ordeal was her unflagging support; the steadfast encouragement of his friend William Oketta, an Anglican priest; and his Christian faith: “My life has changed because now I can’t do many of the things that I would otherwise be doing. For example, my friends work in construction but all I can do is use my bicycle to fetch water and sell it to the builders. I make some money in that simple way but I can’t do the real work they’re involved in.” Grace digs sand for those same workers and, together, they get by. More remarkably, John has achieved a kind of inner peace:
Before forgiving this man, I had a lot of bitterness in my heart. It kept disturbing me so much. I was planning evil revenge all the time. I had wanted also to get the young man who had accused me and mutilate him also. But later, I let that go and now I feel like I have put the burden down.
I took a lot of time meditating on why a fellow human being would do these things to me. And after a long time, I realized that it might not have been him directly – a normal human being cannot do that. Secondly, I found that nothing can undo what that man had done to me. I couldn’t undo the mutilation, so I consoled myself by abandoning the whole idea of revenge, because it was really bothering me, for nothing. So I started moving forward. I abandoned revenge, anger and worry, because they don’t help anything.
Meanwhile, he has moved forward in another way as well. “I want to be computer literate,” he says, “maybe to be a secretary or working in an office to help others with computer services. That is my goal.” In July 2007, using the stumps of his hands to painstakingly peck away at the keyboard, he opened an Internet account and went online for the first time ever, sending a message to a friend across the table at an Internet café.
In 1997, after being kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army at the age of 13, Janette Oyelo was given to the right hand man of LRA leader Joseph Kony. Sometime later, her husband attempted secret peace negotiations with the government but Kony found out and executed him. Janette was given to another man, an elderly commander. Now she earns a meagre living by sewing and dreams of one day designing her own line of clothing. As far-fetched as that may seem, she has already had a taste of it. When her friend, Father Carlos Rodrigues, wrote about a fashion show by one of Africa’s leading designers, he contrasted its glamour with the stark realities faced by Janette, who had just finished a course in fashion design. When the prominent designer saw the article, she was so moved she offered Janette a five-week internship in her fashion house. As part of the experience, African Woman magazine did a makeover spread on Janette.
Moses Rubangangeyo was stolen away from his boarding school with 40 others by the LRA in 1996 and spent eight years in the bush before escaping. The rebels ceremonially cleansed him with a beating of 200 lashes and then introduced him to his new life by having him hack off the leg of a civilian whose only crime was riding a bicycle. The rebels had a standing order that anyone with a bike had to be mutilated because they might take information about rebel positions to the Ugandan army. In 2007 he was treated for some old shrapnel wounds that still give him trouble. When surgeons operated on his chest, they found a bone splinter with two fragments. They removed the smaller one but had to leave the larger one alone. With the fragment still there, Moses can’t breathe fully, his digestion is affected and it’s a constant reminder of the past.